Prediction Decoding with Dan Gardner

Published January 5, 2011 at Click here for the original article.

In the past week, we’ve all switched gears from reviews of 2010 to previews of 2011. So we figured that, while others gaze into their crystal balls, we’d try to provide some crystal clarity. Dan Gardner, the Ottawa-based author of Future Babble, is a high-profile debunker of predictions of all kinds: his book explains why we can’t trust anyone—especially experts—who claims to be able to see the future. Here, Gardner describes five types of predictors to watch out for.

Economists and bankers at major banks have released their predictions for 2011. Good news: they predict “moderate” economic growth. Before the 2008 recession, however, they said much the same —some even predicted a boom. The problem is that economic predictions work by drawing a straight line out from the status quo, Gardner says. So they can rarely tell when a surprise—like a recession or a recovery—is coming. “They’re most wrong when [it’s] most important and they’re most right when [it’s] least important.”

The former CIBC economist and author of Why Your World Is About To Get A Whole Lot Smaller told the Toronto Star that we’ll see triple-digit oil prices in 2011. “At the beginning of 2010, Jeff Rubin said in 2010 oil will rise into triple digits,” Gardner says. “At the beginning of 2009, he said the same. In 2008, he issued a forecast which said by 2010 oil would be up to $200 a barrel. So time after time, he’s wrong. Time after time, he simply forgets what he said in the past.… He’s the perfect example of the kind of expert we should be running away from screaming.”

Toronto’s resident urbanism guru recently wrote, “The good news is that creative-class jobs will continue to grow and provide high-wage, high-skill employment for a large and significant share of the American workforce.” Gardner says: “Richard Florida is a classic example of an expert who is extremely articulate, a wonderful storyteller, and he always has an answer—or at least he thinks so. He uses the same framework; it doesn’t matter if events change. [Experts like Florida] can never be proven wrong. They’ll find some way to rationalize events so they fit their formula.”

Gardner says, “Next time you see a pollster or columnist make a prediction, look for their track record.” We have to admit, ours isn’t so good. Like most Toronto media, EYE WEEKLY didn’t give Rob Ford a chance until halfway through the recent mayoral race (though we did write about his mayoral ambitions way back in 2006). Remember when George Smitherman was a shoe-in? Political speculation is part of filling the “news hole” in the 24/7 news cycle, Gardner says. And speculation about when the next federal elections will happen? “That’s just lazy punditry.”

The all-seeing cephalopod, Paul the Octopus, correctly predicted the winner of every one of Germany’s games in the 2010 World Cup, and also that Spain would win the final. Gardner says, “This story underlines the very important point that pure randomness, i.e. luck, can account not only for the occasional correct prediction, but even for a streak of successful predictions. Unless, of course, you argue that octopi have the capacity to predict international sporting events—in which case you’re nuts.”


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